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And Some More TV

March 7th, 2006

In the past, I’ve blogged on many of the shows I’ve been watching; I wrote about The Simpsons, The West Wing, Boston Legal, the Stargate series, and 24; then about Galactica, then Commander in Chief and Boston Legal again, then on The 4400 and Lost, and finally on Invasion and Threshold. Two of those series, Commander in Chief and Threshold, have been cancelled; CinC not regrettably (it had devolved into a fluffy she-always-wins/family-melodrama), and Threshold more regrettably (though it was becoming a more dull adventure-of-the-week show, it had good characters and some promise). The West Wing is also going off the air, though maybe it’s time to. When Sorkin left, things sagged; though the show regained some of its bounce, it was turning into something it had not started out to be, and by necessity would have had to get a mostly-new cast anyway. At least in its final season, it did what I wished it did three years ago but glossed over: gone into the mechanics of a presidential election, in detail. And in its final season, it has done that admirably.

At a time when a lot of the shows I had liked went off the air, I thought I wouldn’t have as much to watch–but more and more good shows seem to be popping up all over the place. More recently, I’ve picked up House M.D., Surface, and My Name Is Earl.

House, M.D. is a new medical-detective show, in a way similar to CSI in that it searches for scientific evidence where people are trying to hide things. You get the same zoom-into-the-body-organ close-up gross-out effects, but instead of suspects, they have symptoms, and instead of solving a murder, they cure a disease or other illness. And of course, the characters are different, and in this series, there is no questioning that Hugh Laurie is the star. His character is critically flawed but highly entertaining to watch. Brilliant, cruel, bitingly sarcastic and caustic, but with a chewy chocolate center. The character, Dr. Gregory House, is a diagnostician who takes the cases that baffle other doctors. He is a tortured, miserable man who in a way covets his misery. Some years earlier, he suffered a clot in his leg that killed his muscle tissue, leaving him limping on a cane and in constant, severe pain. He treats the pain with Vicodin, which kills his pain but leaves him an addict (one of his trademarks is popping a pill almost constantly). His pain, misery, and anger resulted in the woman he (still) loves leaving him, adding to his grief. He will cut down anyone he sees as deserving (almost everyone) without mercy, slashing with insults and mocking irony, including his patients, whom he often calls “idiots” to their faces, when he’s not avoiding them like the plague. His credo is “everyone lies,” referring to the fact that patients always, through embarrassment, fear, or some other base reason, hide critical information which is key to solving the medical mystery.

House is assisted by three physicians, neurologist Foreman, immunologist Cameron, and intensevist (??) Chase, whom he regularly bullies and orders around, but allows them to have their best at him when they can. The show begins with some illness hitting someone in the teaser (there is always a red herring to keep you guessing, but that schtick gets old fast), and then House and his staff write the symptoms on the whiteboard, throw around possible causes, decide the initial testing, and the game is afoot. From there, they typically make several wrong diagnoses, but eventually, when some critical clue falls into place, they solve the dilemma. Usually the patient is cured, but sometimes at a price (Cuddy’s gardener lost a hand), and sometimes they lose the patient (as with the woman who lost her family then got rabies from a bat). House himself will inevitably violate one or two ethics rules, royally piss off half the people around him, and then deal with inane patients in the teaching hospital’s free clinic, when he can’t hide somewhere watching his soaps.

Along the way, we usually get input from Cuddy, the hospital administrator who fights to protect House from himself, despite his representing a monetary loss for the hospital, while keeping on his back about doing all his duties, especially clinic work. Then there’s Wilson, House’s only real friend, an oncologist who seems warm and innocent, but has his own skeletons in his closet and is inured to House’s abrasive ways.

You might wonder how one could like the main character, but Laurie pulls it off magnificently, knowing exactly how far to take the character, yet still maintain humanity and the hint of compassion behind his callous and uncaring exterior. And, in a twist that surprised me, Laurie is very much British; he does a perfect American accent on the show, enough to fool the producer when he first saw Laurie’s audition tape.

On the other hand, like CSI, this show takes artistic license with reality, causing real doctors some grief about how it will change the perception of doctors and medicine. Nevertheless, House, M.D. is a promising new show; let’s hope it can maintain and even grow on what it has established.

Surface caught me by surprise. I’d thought I was watching all the new alien-invasion series (the other two being Threshold and Invasion), but there it was. It just ended its 15-episode first season (yeah, I wondered at that number as well), and it promises some pretty interesting stuff in the future.

Lake Bell plays Laura Daughtery, an oceanographer who while investigating a volcanic vent on the ocean floor, stumbles upon a new, large vertebrate, a new ocean species no one has ever seen before–or so she thought. Soon, she finds herself under attack from what seems to be a shadowy branch of the government, with agent Davis Lee (Ian Anthony Dale) trying to keep her quiet about her discovery. She soon meets up with the character Richard Connelly, whose brother was dragged to the sea bottom and presumably killed by one of the giant creatures. He begins to have visions, leaves his wife and two daughters, and winds up chasing the mystery around the country with Daughtery. Meanwhile, dorky young teen outcast Miles Bennett finds a cache of mysterious eggs in the sea and takes one home to hatch. When it does, he and his friend name the “lizard” Nimrod and raise the little tyke–only slowly realizing that it is not a known sea creature, as it shows the ability to create electric shocks to kill its prey. Eventually, Nim and his gigantic cousins stop being a secret; Miles starts seeing a quirky and cool girl named Savannah, whose father runs the local aquarium where Miles and Nim take up temporary residence.

Throughout the first season, we slowly see a mystery begin to unravel [moderate spoiler warning!] as we discover that the species is not the natural lost-species we thought, and that the organization hunting down Daughtery is not working for the government, but is completely independent–and possessed of some highly advanced technology it developed secretly over many decades. Now, that organization seems to have almost James-Bondian aspirations, with the new Nim-species acting as its agents. We last see the secret organization heading off on a subterranean railway to the Mariana Trench (from the Carolinas?) as a giant tidal wave crashes into the east coast of the United States.

The series does a good job of making fairly credible what should be a rather incredible plot line–giant sea monsters, a boy and his pet alien, a secret conspiracy to destroy the world, and more. You get caught up enough in the story and the mystery that you allow disbelief to be suspended sufficiently to accept it all. But one of the things I like about the series is that by the end of the first season, the world is very much changed–something that few TV shows are willing to do. Most shows that have incredible plots make it so that no one but the core cast know about it, the rest of the world remaining blissfully ignorant, either to serve the conspiracy or to ‘protect’ them from panic. I like the idea of a show that changes everything, and then runs with it–kind of like The 4400 also does. But there are times when you start to gag at the silliness–like when Miles visits the corpse of Nim, on ice, and Nim comes back to life–a scene stolen straight from E.T., complete with the boy and the alien having a sympathetic psychic link.

And yet, I really like the show, and can’t wait for season two to begin–probably next September, possibly in the summer–though the decision about picking up the show for a second season won’t be made until May. In an interesting (but not really spoiler-ish) twist, the two character groups of the show–Laura and Richard, Miles and Savannah–meet by chance in the last few minutes of the season finale, leaving a lot to be explored between the new character dynamic, made up of four strangers thrown together like a nuclear family, complete with pet lizard. Not to mention a whole new world, and a still mostly-unexplained mystery. But the nice thing about this show is that you don’t feel like the writers are holding back information and doling it out with an eyedropper (like Lost or The X-Files)–things develop faster on this show, often in a more satisfying manner. Should be interesting.

And then there’s My Name Is Earl, a half-hour comedy about a bad guy gone good. Earl, played by Jason Lee, is a dumb, low-life criminal who discovers karma. He steals, hurts people, commits crimes at will–and his life sucks. One day, he buys a scratch-off lottery ticket and wins a $100,000 prize–and then is promptly hit by a car, losing the ticket and landing him in the hospital. While recovering, he sees Carson Daly on TV talking about karma (he assumes Daly discovered the concept) and realizes that karma explains why his life is so bad. He figures that if he keeps on going this way, karma is gonna kill him, so he writes a list of every bad thing he’s done in his life. The idea is that if he can right all his wrongs, things will go well for him.

In the show, karma is practically a character in its own right, having a strong and immediate effect, guiding Earl down the right path. It starts (when Earl vows to set things right) by depositing the wind-blown $100,000 lottery ticket at Earl’s feet, Forrest Gump-style. Armed with the cash, Earl and his (even more) dim-witted brother Randy begin to work through Earl’s list, one at a time, righting wrongs such as “stole car from one-legged woman,” “cost dad the election,” “stole beer from a golfer,” and “didn’t pay taxes.” Other recurring characters include Earl’s gold-digging slut ex-wife Joy whom Earl married while on a drunken binge, and Joy’s new husband, the ever-cool-with-life Darnell, a.k.a. “Crab Man.” Also along for the ride is the sexy Catalina, housekeeper at the motel where Earl and Randy now live.

It’s a great set-up, and should keep the show in concepts for the next many years (there are more than 300 items on the list, and Earl sometimes has to add new ones). The show is hilarious, often spilling out into the absurd, and while the characters are often nasty, selfish and mean, Earl’s new-found moral center keeps them all in check. It doesn’t hurt the comedic effect that they’re all dumb as cement.

One final show of note, though not a new one: Real Time with Bill Maher is back on, repeating its new-since-last-year double-set of a dozen shows each. This set is February to May, the second coming in August to November. The show, kind of like the deluxe cable version of Maher’s Politically Incorrect (now with swear words!), is still usually entertaining. Unfortunately, it suffers all too much from a descent into base punditry, especially when some talking-head guest has a loud mouth and a rehearsed set of talking points. Maher never does much research and often combats the pundit with nothing more than “that just sounds wrong.” Another sand-trap is when the comic-relief guest takes over the show with an irrelevant routine; maybe a little funny at first, it soon derails the rest of the show. And Maher himself will, once in a while, depart from his Libertarian core and run off on some strange tangent that will run for weeks until Maher quietly gives up on it, like giving Bush credit for bravely investing on Democracy in Iraq, or believing that it’s a good thing that the NSA is spying on Americans without warrants because he lives close to the L.A. ports and is worried about being attacked.

That said, when the show works, it works well. If the guests balance right, the show can be funny, entertaining, and sometimes educational (though not often for the latter). Maher often has good guests, though he has a strange caustic-attack combined with I’ll-let-you-get-away-with-selling-your-line-of-BS approach with some of the more radical guests. And Maher’s “New Rules” segment is more often entertaining as not, proportionally in contrast with his middle-of-the-show funny-photo mock-up schtick which bombs more than it hits. So the show is hit-and-miss, but hits enough to keep me watching.

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